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Some Thoughts On Teaching Problem Solving Skills To Engineering Students

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1998 Annual Conference


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 28, 1998

Start Date

June 28, 1998

End Date

July 1, 1998



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Page Numbers

3.504.1 - 3.504.2



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Steven E. LeBlanc

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2230

Some Thoughts on Teaching Problem Solving Skills to Engineering Students

Steven E. LeBlanc University of Toledo Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering Toledo, OH 43606

Why bother teaching problem solving skills to engineering students? They'll pick these skills up along the way just like we did as we went through school, right? Well, maybe, then again, maybe not. Problem solving is an acquired skill much as any other skill, like shooting baskets, throwing a baseball or riding a bike. The more we practice, the better we get. If we expect our students to become proficient problem solvers, we need to give them the opportunity to practice... to solve problems. The more different types of problems that we can expose them to, the better solvers they will become. And, if there are some tricks or successful techniques that we have learned or developed along the way, shouldn't we pass those along to the students? That's why I believe that we should include problem solving skills in the engineering curriculum. If you ask employers what skills new graduates should bring to the workplace, heading the list will be communication skills and the ability to solve problems. We will be doing our students a great disservice if we neglect to polish and hone their problem solving skills while they are with us.

Where should we introduce this material in the curriculum? It's already too full, you say. What should we leave out to make room for it? I don't believe that's the correct approach. There is a variety of ways that can (and should, in my opinion) be used to cover these skills in a traditional engineering curriculum. One alternative is as part of an introductory engineering course for freshman. Many schools have decided to move some design activities down into the freshman year courses. Design activities (at the freshman or even at the level of the senior capstone course) provide an ideal vehicle to insert this material into the curriculum. Laboratory courses also are a good time to cover problem solving skills (and the companion troubleshooting skills).

Many problem solving heuristics can be shown to be analogous or a variation on the Scientific Method that our students have drilled into them since grade school1.

Table 1 - Comparison of the Scientific Method and a Problem Solving Heuristic Problem Solving Heuristic Scientific Method Problem Definition Problem Given or Defined Generation of Alternatives Hypothesis Deciding the Course of Action Gather Data Implementation Evaluation Support or Reject Hypothesis

LeBlanc, S. E. (1998, June), Some Thoughts On Teaching Problem Solving Skills To Engineering Students Paper presented at 1998 Annual Conference, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/1-2--7418

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